9 June 2020

Writing your way to better mental health


Jenna Keighley

I’ve just sat here for an hour, thinking about this post and how to start it, staring at a blank screen. Words have power and for me, the act of writing something down; pinning that thought or idea to paper (whether real or virtual); gives that concept greater clarity and impact. The physical act of writing has long been linked to human learning. For some people (I’m one of them), the act of hand-writing notes, helps them to learn and retain that information in a way that typing never could. Writing down your inner thoughts involves a complex set of processes: thinking about what you want to write, perhaps planning the structure, formulating the sentences and reviewing, then editing the language used. 

It’s this level of focus and care that can be supremely cathartic. Writing therapy has been around for a while, helping sufferers of all sorts of trauma, from battlefield PTSD to historic sexual abuse, to process their thoughts, feelings and memories into a more manageable form. Writing therapy can take the form of creative writing, such as short stories or poetry or more factual journaling or diary-writing. Although many people diagnosed with mental ill-health can access official writing therapy programmes, resources are finite and it’s estimated that one in four people in the UK will experience mental illness at some point in their lives, with a “tsunami” of mental ill-health also anticipated as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Many people will not seek a diagnosis, perhaps because they “weren’t brought up to talk about their feelings with strangers” or perhaps because they simply don’t recognise the signs where everyday life has developed into something heavier, darker and more crippling.  

However, with mental health finally starting to lose its taboo status, we now have access to a greater selection of options to either seek professional help or help ourselves. UK charity, Mind, has shared a great list of mental health apps available for mental health and wellbeing. These include apps like Silvercloud – with a host of programmes, interactive tools and tactics to address mental and behavioural health issues. You can also try Daylio either to track your moods or adding as much detail as you like to create a full-blown diary. MoodTools also offers a Thought Diary function, allowing you to analyse your thoughts and identify negative or disordered patterns of thinking, based on the principles of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).  

Where external support is needed, the old-school therapist’s couch is also going digital, with companies like My Online Therapy offering patients the option to choose whether they speak to a professional therapist via video chat, live chat or daily messenger. Even when you’re working with a professional therapist, vocalising your pain can be one of the biggest barriers to someone seeking help. Therefore the act of typing can give a patient the time, breathing space and freedom to express themselves in their own words.  

Naturally, in this scenario, privacy and anonymity of the patient’s data is of paramount importance and companies venturing into this space must ensure that the pace of innovation doesn’t outstrip the ethics and ability to protect that patient, whether their session notes are hand-written in the therapist’s filing cabinet or encrypted in a cloud-based vault. 

The theme of the recent 2020 Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK was around kindness. At the risk of sounding like a proper old fogie, this seems to have been the inevitable result of a social media age that has given rise to cyber bullying on a whole other level to anything that we could ever have anticipated in 2010. However, for all the ugliness that human nature has unleashed (often on Twitter from people too cowardly and insecure to put their name to their hate), a new, “positive vibes only” movement has started to rise, empowered by the same technology. These are safe-space communities where people can go to talk anonymously about their issues, in a supportive, professionally-moderated environment. 

The Big White Wall is one such global community which is moderated by trained mental health practitioners but which aims to harness the power of peer-to-peer support and connectedness to help members manage their mental health and ultimately, their recovery. Elefriends, Mind’s own online community, is also available, providing members with a “safe place to listen, share and be heard”, moderated by “Ele handlers” from 10am until midnight.  

The Big White Wall is interesting to me as it’s seen as something that companies can offer their employees as part of their health cover but on a day-to-day basis, we also need to ensure that we’re being as supportive as we can be to our colleagues. Asking “how are you” seems really simple, but it can be an incredibly difficult question to ask and answer, with the manager worrying about how to handle the answer they might get and the employee worrying about *how truthful* they should be about any personal struggle without it creating a bigger issue with HR. It can also elicit heightened levels of paranoia from someone who may already be struggling with low self-esteem. Writing it down can, for some people, be the answer. 

ServiceTick offers Voice of the Employee and Voice of the Customer insight services, deploying stakeholder surveys to “drive measurable business benefit”. Recently, to coincide with mental health awareness week, the company launched the beta of its new CheckIn app, designed to provide an easy way for companies to keep tabs on their employees’ mental wellbeing. The app allows employees to rate how they are feeling, sending an alert to a manager or HR representative if the employee indicates they are in crisis. 

There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to mental health and wellbeing but it’s reassuring to know that technology can provide at least part of the solution to help people manage their own circumstances and companies can engage with their people, without seeming to force the issue or invade their privacy.  

Although Mental Health Awareness Week is over, it’s important that we don’t lose our focus on doing what’s best for our colleagues, family, friends and acquaintances – whether that takes the form of a natter over a coffee, a carefully-worded email or whether it’s simply ensuring that the tools are available for use by whoever may need them. 


Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash